by Allene Hickox
“Come on, Allene. Let’s go for a walk and see the troop train go by,” invited my Dad. At age six, I still wanted to please my Dad by doing what he asked. And a real troop train sounded exciting to me. Living as a child through the years of World War II held all sorts of new ideas.
Since the railroad tracks were only a few blocks from our home, it just took a short walk to get there. Don’t ask me how my Daddy knew the exact time the troop train would go past our area in San Jose. But Dads seem to know these things. And since he worked as a photo-engraver in the graphic arts part of our local newspaper, The San Jose Mercury-News, he may have had “inside information.”
My Dad, not being tall, was comfortable for me to walk beside. He may have been kind of short, but to me he was big in other ways that really mattered to a little girl.
As we approached the empty track, no train was in sight. I realized my Dad wanted us to get there a little early so I could see the giant engine and its many, many passenger cars from far away and then coming closer and closer until this special train with its precious load of human cargo would pass right before our eyes. And then fade away from us getting smaller and smaller rolling along into the distance headed for I did not know where.
As the first few passenger cars came near us, I saw that each window held two or three American soldiers dressed in their khaki-colored uniforms, each wearing his khaki-colored cloth hat on his head, sort of like a soda jerk’s hat at our drugstore fountain.
There were so very many train windows with each window filled with soldiers’ faces turned toward me and my Dad. I began to wave at the soldiers. And guess what? They all, each one in turn, waved and smiled back at me. Thrilled, I began waving more and smiling more at each passing car.
Despite my excitement at seeing the passing troop train with all its soldiers, there came a quiet awareness from deep inside me that this event showed us more than an exciting and friendly occurrence. Yet I, being only six years old, could not begin to understand that I was watching history being made as the train steadily rolled on by.
Since no American families owned a TV set in the early 1940’s, we got news about the war by reading the local newspapers. And of course, everyone sat glued to their radios each night after dinner, hoping to learn more about our troops and how America was doing in defeating the enemy across the ocean.
I don’t recall if this was the only troop train I ever saw during the war years. My Dad never spoke about our early evening train time together and that not every soldier we saw would return home alive to America and his family. Oh, they’d return but in a military casket draped in a red, white, and blue star-spangled banner, our American flag.
Some soldiers came back with body parts missing, only to be replaced with an artificial arm, leg, or eye. Of course, the unseen wounds, not visible to the eye, held grievous pain and suffering just as real as flesh and blood wounds. I heard grown-ups saying these brave soldiers were “shell-shocked.” Now, years later, America calls it PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My mother and grandmother often spoke of Bill, a cousin’s son, who returned from the war with recurring nightmares. He’d fought in the South Pacific against our enemy, the Japanese. His nightmare was always the same. I think he must have been captured by the Japanese and held as a POW. He told his family that his nightmares were of being surrounded by Japanese soldiers, and that if he moved he’d be shot, and that if he didn’t move he’d be shot.
That war story about Bill never made much sense to me at the time. How could a soldier be shot for moving and also be shot for not moving. All I know is I felt a sadness spreading inside me whenever Mom and grandmother talked about poor Bill.
Feeling rather helpless because I couldn’t do anything to stop cousin Bill from having these dreadful nightmares, I was very eager to do my part “for the war effort” in any small way I could. I got my chance at my school when I was in kindergarten. The U.S. government, to strengthen our national security, ordered every American child of school age to be fingerprinted. That meant one solemn school day each classroom, starting with the kindergarten, had to go to a large room and stand in a long line for a grown-up to help us have our right thumbprint made on a wallet-sized white card. Each small card had black, printed words on it that stated each card bearer was a U.S. citizen with a name and home address for each child.
Being so young, I could not really read all of these important words on this very special card I was about to be issued. A grown-up I’d never seen before told us children that’s what our cards were for so that grown-ups would know who each of us was and where we lived. I was never sure what exactly this meant to me in my small child’s world.
But I sure knew I was getting my right thumb pressed firmly onto the black ink pad and then rolled onto the little white card by a determined grown-up on the other side of a long table. How big and fat my thumbprint looked. As I took the offered small piece of tan paper towel, I quickly wiped off the black ink from my thumb as best I could. That was easy. And then came the really hard part. This same grown-up told me to write my name, my first and last names.
“Wait a minute,” I thought. “I only know how to print my name.” I didn’t know yet how to write like a grown-up. Since no one behind the table said it was fine if I just printed my name, and being a kid, I sure didn’t want to ask this adult looking down at me.
After all, I’d seen a real troop train go by, and I really wanted to be a part of “the war effort.” This was my big chance. “Little fingers don’t fail me now,” I silently told my small left hand. Picking up the fat kindergarten pencil, I squeezed my thumb and four fingers tightly around the pencil’s red painted wood. Bravely, I began to form round, plump letters attached to one another by curvy, rolling pencil lines. Many minutes seemed to pass as I finished my first name and then my last name. My aching left fingers seemed grateful that I had a short and a medium sized name, not a name with lots of letters to make.
Proudly, I held the finished card in my hands. I had done what my government told me to do. Now, I knew I was a real part of “the war effort.” I knew those soldiers in the passing troop train would be proud of me too. And so would cousin Bill.